Category Archives: Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah

A Message For Yom Haatzmaut 5767

Yom Haatzmaut has always been a controversial holiday given the religious and political significance of the State. For some, the State of Israel is a harbinger of a messianic age, while others are theologically opposed to a Jewish presence in Israel. Then of course there are secularists who minimize the religious aspect of Israel and emphasize the importance of Israel purely as a political entity.

But regardless of how one views the State of Israel, most will acknowledge (and often complain) about how Israel functions. Religiously, Israel is be too oppressive for some and too accommodating for others. Israel’s public policy has also been debated at length, with similar dissatisfaction from leftists and rightists.

I have not conducted a formal study on the qualitative strength of Zionism today, but I would suspect that as the government and rabbinate continue to make controversial decisions that it would erode some of the Zionistic passion and support. On the other hand, Aliyah continues to grow at a steady pace and most Jews across denominations still support Israel in some way. I suggest that this is because the relationship with Israel does not follow usual patterns of logic but rather the commitment of emotion.
One of my favorite verses in Tanach is the insightful Mishlei 10:12sin’ah t’oreir m’danim, v’al kol p’sha’im t’chase ahava” – hatred awakens strife, but love covers all offenses. This astute observation is repeatedly validated in most interpersonal relationships. Someone who hates another will consistently focus on negative characteristics (real or imagined). This can range from denying positive aspects to actively stirring up trouble and picking fights. In contrast, even the most obviously explicit shortcomings are blissfully overlooked when love is involved.

In this past week’s Torah reading of Tazria/Metzora we find an example of this principle demonstrated in the halakha. Vayikra 14:33-57 describes the process by which a kohein declares a house to be infected with tzara’at and the method of repurification. The first step in the process is one of exposure; before the kohein conducts his examination, he removes the entire contents of the house (14:36). Presumably this would be a practical instruction to facilitate a more thorough examination. Considering that the consequence of a diagnosis of infection is the house must be dismantled (14:45), we should expect the kohein’s examination to be as comprehensive as possible.

However despite the literal airing of one’s laundry in public, the kohein’s inspection also literally leaves a stone unturned. Specifically, when the kohein enters the house, he needs to open the door. While the door is open the kohein obviously cannot check the obstructed area behind the door. Yet according to B. Hullin 10b the kohein only closes the door when he leaves, bypassing that hidden area. In other words, despite the practical and potentially spiritual consequences, the Torah instructs that there be some area left unchecked.

I suggest that this detail is crucial for the understanding of tzara’at. B. Arachin 16a lists some of the sins which tzara’at of the house, which include stinginess and lashon hara – bad speech. Perhaps the public removal of ones property and the meticulous examination of the violator’s house parallels the personal judgments he imposed on others. However, by leaving part of the house coved (kisuyi) and outside of scope his examination, the kohein is also demonstrating to the offender that this examination is not done of hatred or revenge, but rather out of ahava – love.

I heard a speaker this past Shabbat who in extolling the greatness of Israel emphasized the triad of Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel, Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel, and Torat Yisrael. Recent events have shown that this model is not only insufficient, but also wildly inaccurate. The “nation” of Israel is fractured both politically and religiously that the unity implied by “Am” is tenuous at best. Torat Yisrael is repeatedly abused due to rampant (and illiterate) fundamentalism on the left and right. Even the Land itself is unstable given the unsettling policies of the Israeli government.

The problems with the State of Israel are beyond the scope of this essay. What is relevant is that despite all the valid criticisms and difficulties of Israel, people are still making aliyah and strengthening their connection with Eretz Yisrael. Such a commitment would not be possible with a purely rational perspective, but would require some degree of cognitive dissonance – the ability to intentionally overlook the adversities out of the love for Israel and her people.

In other words, Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael can only survive and succeed if they are first predicated and dependent on Ahavat Yisrael.

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Parashat Vayetzei – 2006/5766

For the first time since the inaugural Parashat Shelach devar torah, I’m writing the “Parasha Perspectives” section of Mt. Sinai’s announcements this week. The delay is most likely due to the changing of the people in charge, and the fact that Mt. Sinai has such a deep pool of talent.
Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Anyway, here’s this week’s for Parashat Vayetzei. Once again, the degree of difficulty is the one-page limit.

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Posted in Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Some Thoughts On Teshuva

I had initially posted this a few days ago, but Josh Waxman pointed out a very careless grammatical error on my part which has since been corrected. Thanks Josh!

Anyone who has spent time in Yeshiva or Seminary during the asseret yemei teshuva has likely played The Mehilla Game, played simply by asking everyone for generic forgiveness and reciprocating with a comprehensive absolution of your own. Given that forgiveness should ostensibly be something personal and individualized it seems contradictory that asking forgiveness has been ritualized to the point of reciting the encompassing tefillah zakkah on Erev Yom Kippur.

In an excellent shiur over Rosh Hashanna, R. Adam Starr of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale questioned efficacy of such sweeping acts of forgiveness.1 On one hand M. Yoma 8:9 states that Yom Kippur does not absolve interpersonal transgressions until the offended party forgives the offender. However, R. Starr also noted M. Bava Kamma 8:9 in which mehilla is not contingent on being forgiven, but on the very act of asking for forgiveness. R. Starr argued that being forgiven is only a part of the process repentance, but to achieve a full teshuva one must work to reestablish the fractured relationship. Consequently, even if there is a complete forgiveness granted, there is no mehillah until there is a confrontation and the offender requests it.

While I agree with essence R. Starr’s shiur I see the two sources slightly differently in that neither Mishna presents a superior model of interpersonal teshuva but must be taken together to be fully appreciated. According to M. Yoma 8:7, Yom Kippur is “mechaper” for personal sins only when the offended party is sufficiently appeased.

עבירות שבין אדם למקום יום הכפורים מכפר עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שירצה את חברו

M. Bava Kamma 8:7 discusses that even if someone pays restitution for damages, he does not receive mehillah until he asks for it. However, this Mishnah also adds that the one who is being asked of forgiveness should not be an “achzari” – i.e. he should not be stubborn in refusing to forgive.

אף על פי שהוא נותן לו אין נמחל לו עד שיבקש ממנו שנאמר (בראשית כ’) ועתה השב אשת וגומר ומנין שלא יהא המוחל אכזרי שנאמר (שם /בראשית כ’/) ויתפלל אברהם אל האלהים וירפא אלהים את אבימלך וגומר

The difference between the mehillah in Bava Kamma and the kappara in Yoma is that the mehillah could be given out of a sense of obligation or guilt – not to be considered an achzari. Kappara on the other hand takes place “ad sheyeratzeh et chaveiro” – only until there is a genuine appeasement.

We previously discussed the phenomenon where people are expected to forgive. In these cases, the hurt is still there and often the person asking for forgiveness simply wishes to mollify a guilty conscience. According to this reading of the two Mishnayot, while there could be mehilla if it is induced through guilt there would still not be a full kapparah if deep down the other does not wish to forgive.

As R. Starr argued, the complete teshuva for bein adam l’haveiro is really in the restitution of a relationship between people. Simply asking for forgiveness is itself insufficient. To achieve a full kapparah we cannot simply rely on the other person to give mehillah, but we must work to rebuild the relationship, to the point where the other person genuinely wants us to be forgiven. This of course entails more than the conventional lip service of “do you mohel me” but requires thinking outside of ourselves toward the needs and feelings of the people we have harmed.
Granted it’s not as easy, but no one said spiritual improvement would be.

1. Indeed, if this sort of teshuva was in fact effective, then we would be solving the problem of sin’at hinam. This would not just result in a kapparah on an individual level, but in the complete national geulah.

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , .

Existential Teshuva And The Incredible Hulk

In this season of teshuva leading up to the yamim nora’im religious discussions primarily focus on personal change. We look to change our practices, ideally becoming more committed to Torah. We seek to change our religious perspectives, hopefully reconnecting with the Divine. For Rambam, this process of change is not simply behavioral, but existential. As we acknowledge and renounce our transgressions we also take measures demonstrating that we have changed to the point where we “are no longer the same person who committed these actions” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

But what does it mean that we are no longer the same person? How does the process of teshuva effect a change so substantive that it alters our fundamental identity? In order to fully understand this transition we must tackle the philosophical question of what is the true essence of our personal identity – to find the essential determinant which makes us “us” such that changing this element constitutes a meaningful change in our identity. While this challenge may seem daunting to lesser minds, it is no match for the discerning duo of The Incredible Hulk…and an Oxford PhD.
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9 Av, The Hurban, And The Lessons of Sodom

While there is no shortage of Biblical verses rebuking Benei Yisrael for their various transgressions, one such indictment which seems imprecise and perhaps overly harsh is the comparison with the people of S’dom and ‘Amorah. As we know, the legacy of S’dom and ‘Amorah is one of unmitigated evil and a benchmark for immorality which is used to this day. Their sins were so complete and evil so absolute that Hashem does not simply cause the cities’ destruction, but completely obliterates them with unparalleled divine wrath. And yet in Eicha we are told that “the sins of the daughter of my people is greater than that of S’dom” (Eicha 4:6), and in the Haftara of Hazon the Navi exclaims “Heed the word of Hashem you leaders of S’dom, listen to the words of our God’s Torah you people of ‘Amorah” (Yeshayahu 1:10). Were the sins of the Jews in fact as serious and complete to warrant such comparisons with S’dom and ‘Amorah?

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Parashat Shelach – 2006/5766

This past week Mt. Sinai started printing what will likely be weekly announcement flyers. Most people agreed that the announcements took way too long especially considering that the majority of regularly scheduled events never changed, and now that there is an eruv people can actually take them home.
Since we are a nice frum shul, they also had the idea to have a devar torah on the flip side. And for some reason, I was asked to provide the inaugural devar torah.1
As difficult as it is to come up with meaningful derashot, I’ve found it particularly challenging to do so in a one-page limit. Since there are many ideas which I tried to cover and many details and sources which needed to be omitted, I may revisit these issues in a future post. In the meantime here is the devar torah as printed.

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Random Thoughts On Yom Ha’atzmaut

I know I owe a post on Pesach and that will be coming along soon. In the meantime, being Yom Haatzmaut and all and having recently returned from Israel, I figure it’s time for some random thoughts on Zionism or at least some general attitudes towards it.

While most Jews I’ve met would claim to “support Israel” ideologically but as expected, this support is highly subjective and how it is conveyed is equally varied. Some support Israel financialy through donations, Israel bonds, trips, or purchasing Israeli products where possible. Others take part in ceremonies, programs, or parades demosntrating their solidarity with the Jewish state.

And of course, others actually move there.

I’ve spoken to olim about the Zionism of Americans and quite are cynical, some to the point of outright disdain. If you believe that Israel is that important to the Jewish people as a nation or as a religion, then why not move? As one person expressed to me, the real meaning of an America going to the Israeli Day Parade is like saying that Israel is a great country – for someone else.

Others have toned down the pro-aliyah rhetoric for pragmatic reasons; people don’t always respond well to sanctimonious rantings. Still there is some resentment at the pharisaical Zionistic propoganda from those who haven’t actually made aliyah.

The question I have been dealing with recently is if American Zionism inherently hypocritical. Can one honestly claim to be Zionistic without actively planning and/or preparing for aliyah or is this just another example of vicarious Judaism?

My current thinking is to distinguish between who and how Zionistic messages are being propogated. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard the hocker in shul pontificating as to what Israel ought to do to solve their security or economic crises. Or perhaps you’ve heard the Rabbis extoling the superior spirituality of God’s chosen land.

In these types of rantings, the lack of aliyah mitigates the intended message. Unless the hocker is an expert in history, political theory, or has some other expertise, then his right to an argument is likely based on a perceived connection with the State of Israel. However, were his connection to be serious, then aliyah should be in his short-term plans. Similarly, if the Rabbi truly believes in the ultimate kiddusha of Eretz Yisrael then why not move?

Where I think these discussions disintegrate is in the motivations of the participants. For example, people could be taking extreme positions to overcompensate for their own Zionistic shortcomings.1 Or like many conversations, people could just be motivated from simple ideological arrogance.2

What are the alternatives? Frankly I’m trying to figure those out myself. Humility would be a good first step, but we could use that all over. On the other hand, Israel is one of the few things about which Jews feel strongly. Perhaps muting such passion would have even more averse consequences.

I’m still working this out, but I’m open to suggestions.

1. At least Rabbis have the capacity to create their own religious justifications for not making aliyah such as they can do more and better work the Jewish people in America or elsewhere. Even so, the premise of this noble sacrifice is rooted in sheer arrogance that their work is that crucial to the Jewish people. Some Rabbis might be able to get away with this, say R. Avi Weiss perhaps, but these would be the exceptions.
2. Not to say you don’t find this among Israelis, but at lest they live there.

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Politics, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with .

One Day More

As some of you may know I’m going to be in Israel for Pesach. It’s my first vacation in just about ever, since for several years I have either had the time or money to travel, but not both. So I figure since I might not have the time or access to post over Pesach, I can address something for which I have recently been getting a lot of flack.

Despite my staying in Israel for roughly two weeks, I will be keeping one day of Yom Tov this Pesach.

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Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , .

Don’t Forget To Remember

With Purim nearly upon us, it’s time once again for the reading of the four special parshiyot. We’re actually in the middle, having already covered sheqalim last week, but this week we get the spectacular fun of zachor (Devarim 25:17-19). Invariably, this reading generates much discussion as to how this passage should be read (including the practice of repeaing the last verse – a discussion for another time), and the extreme importance of being in shul to hear zachor being read.

Most of these discussions are based on the preception that the reading of parashat zachor is biblically mandated. This assumption has bothered me for some time, as well as the cavalier attitude with which it is presented. Despite the lack of textual evidence or logical consistency, few people question the nature of keriat parashat zachor. As luck would have it, my new upgraded Bar Ilan CD just came in and it’s all all revved up for a test spin.

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Why Hannukah Endures

The following is an exposition of an idea quoted in the Daily News (December 25, 2005)
I’ve always found it interesting how Hannukah, a relatively late Rabbinic enactment, has become of the most widely recognized and observed Jewish holidays. To be sure, its proximity to Christmas has helped; Hannukah falls around the most celebrated holiday worldwide and comparisons or connections between the two are understandable. Thanks to an increasingly politically correct climate, Menorahs are often displayed in more ecumenical seasonal displays, further increasing Hannukah’s exposure.
But I would also suggest that it is Hannukah’s intrinsic messages and meanings which inspire countless generations. Compared to other Jewish holidays, the primary themes of Hannukah are not exclusively relevant to religious Jews, but are universally fundamental and basic to the larger population as well.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.